Lessons from a Turnaround Artist

The recently announced $150M gift to Yale University from Blackstone Group CEO Steven Schwarzman to build a new performing arts center on campus sent school administrators to seek the counsel of Michael Kaiser. Former director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, Kaiser currently chairs the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, providing consulting and training services to arts administrators and trustees.

This news sent me back to my bookshelves to dust off Kaiser’s 2008 book, The Art of the Turnaround. I thought I might glean some insights about building and programming a new cultural facility from scratch while avoiding the need for turnaround strategies that Kaiser has employed throughout his impressive career. 

In rereading his practical, born-of-experience philosophy, I was put off again by the fact that Kaiser writes in lots of “I” statements throughout the book, which can leave the impression he single-handedly orchestrated the transformations of the five performing arts organizations he profiles (all organizations he led): Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterAmerican Ballet Theatre, Royal Opera House, and the Kennedy Center. (For the record, he does make a disclaimer in the short acknowledgements section of the book, citing various individuals who assisted his efforts.) Certainly, inspired leadership, imagination, strategic focus and hard work like that demonstrated by Kaiser are crucial to any cultural organization, but no one goes it alone. Leaders are important, but so are followers.

Superman Turnaround  by  Mark Hossain . Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

Superman Turnaround by Mark Hossain. Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

In spite of this, Kaiser offers some truly useful advice. Here’s my summary of his Ten Rules of the Turnaround*, with my own thoughts thrown in:

  1. Choose a leader with vision, courage, and keen communication and negotiation skills, someone who works incredibly hard and earns widespread respect from all stakeholders. Such a leader must simultaneously be catalyst, guide, facilitator, consensus builder and doer
  2. Lead with a plan that outlines a strategic vision for the future within the context of institutional mission and goals, one that considers the competitive environment, as well as organizational assets and ailments. The plan must be actionable, both operationally and financially, and based on a very simple premise, according to Kaiser: “Good art, well marketed.” (See #s 5 and 6, below.)
  3. Prioritize increasing revenue over decreasing costs. A fan of the adage, “You can’t cut your way to growth,” Kaiser believes that most arts organizations don’t have much fat to trim. Instead, he recommends investing in strategies that boost contributed and earned income. Both of these rely on stellar programs to engage patrons and audiences alike, as well as operational efficiency. 
  4. Let go of the past and focus on what’s ahead. Recognizing that finding fault and casting blame does nothing to move forward from whatever stressful situation an organization finds itself, Kaiser recommends not looking back. (While I agree that a no-fault approach has merit, I would advise that objectively examining what transpired can be useful in distilling lessons learned and instilling accountability.) He urges addressing immediate issues (like deficits) and then laser focusing on “artistic programming, board development, donor and press cultivation, and other activities” that will support a sustainable future. 
  5. Plan ahead, far ahead. Kaiser believes in the bold gesture and mapping a programming schedule five years out. This allows sufficient time for artists to create new work and for organizations to raise money, negotiate partnerships with other institutions and cultivate advance press, all of which help to garner audiences and needed resources while building (or rebuilding) institutional profile.
  6. Don’t cut the marketing budget! Although it’s often the knee jerk reaction in times of financial distress, Kaiser admonishes resisting this impulse and doing the exact opposite. Invest substantially and strategically in promoting upcoming artistic and educational programs, and develop brand by marketing the institution. All of this is best orchestrated via a well-crafted marketing and communications plan.
  7. Designate one spokesperson to control external messaging, and focus only on positive, mission-oriented, good news storytelling. Indeed, this is critical in a turnaround situation where working to shift public opinion is essential, but a healthy organization can and should support multiple spokespeople to reflect the diverse talents of the leadership team, both staff and board members. Kaiser makes a good point, though, that these messages should be coordinated and managed, ideally by experts in PR and marketing.
  8. Fundraise for gifts large enough to make a difference. Kaiser has learned from experience that funds to fuel institutional transformations primary come through raised revenue, not admissions or the box office. (The same is true for startups or capital expansions.) So focusing attention on major gifts fundraising is imperative. Like me, Kaiser believes in pursuing “right-sized” contributions that are consistent with operational budgets and giving thresholds, and within reach of a sufficient number of donor prospects to make goal. It's worth reiterating the importance of doing your homework to find the strategic intersections between donor capacity and passion and institutional vision and needs. 
  9. Restructure the board. Show me a struggling cultural nonprofit and I’ll show you a weak board inadequately supporting organizational well-being. Frail boards usually equate to anemic fundraising results, which only keep organizations in a constant state of crisis. Kaiser maintains that arts leaders must objectively evaluate their current trustee rosters, rotate off those who can’t make the needed financial commitment, and recruit new members who can and will. I’d also advocate for identifying the qualities and expertise needed for optimal board service, including philanthropic capacity, then assess where there are gaps and seek new candidates to fill those gaps. And then prioritize board engagement – Kaiser asserts that each trustee should receive meaningful, personalized communication from senior staff at least six times annually.
  10. Be disciplined about following the plan. Driving a successful organizational transformation requires “balancing competing needs,” as Kaiser notes, and staying focused on priorities and immediate goals. Crisis creates urgency and that can be used as an effective rallying cry to collectively work the plan, focus on solutions and produce what leadership and change agent guru John Kotter calls “short-term wins” to keep the momentum going.

Ironically, Kaiser’s most recent book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, doesn’t paint a rosy picture for cultural organizations, especially those that advance more traditional art forms, such as opera, ballet, classical music and theater. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts released in January 2015 underscore Kaiser’s pessimism and confirm the decline of in-person arts participation (i.e., going to the theater or symphony) over the past two decades, while digital participation (for example, accessing culture via the Internet) has grown.   

But various reports are contradictory. There’s still a big appetite for art making, as evidenced by the increase in student enrollment and graduation in fine arts disciplines, and for arts engagement, such as the out-sized crowds jamming this Carolina Beach street art festival or the record attendance at Broadway theaters this past year. Such is the bet that Yale is making, and presumably Kaiser will offer similar counsel to the school as he did in a recent WQXR radio interview with Naomi Lewin:

  • Focus on the new. Foster exciting, innovative programming. Don’t play it safe. Produce large projects, like festivals, that excite and invite participation.
  • Enhance community-wide standards for arts education.
  • Make it fun, engaging and accessible to be a donor, at all levels. 

And I would add take the time to articulate organizational vision and the “why” behind investing in creativity and cultural resources to provide perspective over the long-term. For further insights on institutional transformations in the museum sector, check out the book I co-authored with Beth Tuttle, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement.

* Kaiser, Michael M. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008, pps. 1-14.

The Winning Bid: Do's and Don'ts for RFPs

At last month’s American Alliance of Museums 2015 annual meeting in Atlanta, I sat in on a facilitated conversation organized by my colleagues in The Museum Group. About 30 people gathered to address the sometimes discordant dance between clients and vendors in the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. The purpose of the discussion was not to “whine” about unfriendly or exploitive practices, as our host, museum content developer Carol Bossert, instructed the group, but rather identify best practices that benefit all parties. Carol was joined by exhibit designer and fabricator Paul Orselli and project manager Barbara Punt, who each added depth and perspective to the discussion.

Informed by the TMG conversation, the below Do’s and Don’ts are meant as a helpful guide to cultural organizations issuing RFPs to ensure a fair and equitable process based on mutual respect and trust between client and vendor. —AB

Let’s say you’re a new manager who has determined that your organization is in need of outside services – such as master planning or brand development or direct mail implementation – that your in-house team doesn’t have the time nor expertise to handle. And let’s say you’ve also determined that the best way to solicit such services is through an RFP process, but you’ve never actually administered one before. What now?

Start by asking your colleagues for some sample RFPs to acquaint yourself with how they’re written and what they contain. Here’s a good example and a good template. And then allow sufficient time to think through your needs, craft a solid request and run a fair process. Here’s how: 

Do This

  • Clearly define the scope of work for the requested services, the need or challenge to be addressed, and the anticipated end result. Provide substantive background information on your organization, programs and strategic direction so that vendors have the necessary data to respond appropriately and specifically to your stated goals.
  • Establish realistic budgetary parameters and convey this information in the RFP. This can be provided as a set or not-to-exceed number, or a budget range, and may require doing some preliminary homework to learn what the requested services typically cost. Why are budget guidelines important? Because they signify to vendors that this is a genuine project and you’re not just seeking free advice (see below), and they offer a sense of project scale (i.e., $30K vs. $300K) and institutional capacity, all of which is helpful to vendors in crafting a suitable response.
  • Outline the RFP process in detail, set a realistic time frame, summarize the deadlines and then maintain the schedule. A typical timeline includes the following: RFP release date, Q&A deadline, submittals deadline, proposal review period and telephone interviews, finalists notification, finalists interviews, vendor selection notification, and contract start and end dates.
  • Identify the information you will need to assess a vendor’s proposal – for example, the firm’s qualifications and past experience, methodology and deliverables, background on the project team, the cost and breakdown of fees, subcontractor arrangements, projected timeline, sample past projects, references, etc. – and outline all of this in the RFP.
  • Articulate in the RFP the objective criteria by which respondents will be evaluated – i.e., the overall quality of the proposal, firm credentials and expertise, price, vendor’s geographic location, and whatever else is important to you. Recognize that there is subjective criteria, too, such as how well the firm communicates and interacts with all of your representatives, the rapport you develop in the recruitment process, and peer references. Then consistently and fairly apply the same assessment measures to each proposal.
  • Consider a two-phased process, beginning with the submittal of credentials through a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), followed by an RFP provided to a select group of vendors that you have narrowed to no more than five bidders. This truncated process makes it easy to weed out unqualified firms and focus in-depth attention on the handful that can deliver what you need. For a sample RFQ, visit here.
  • Create and implement a marketing plan to distribute your RFP, determining in advance if your process is open to all or if you intend to approach a predetermined list of qualified firms identified through peer networking and outreach. If open to all, establish a page on your website to promote and share information about the RFP process, and use traditional and social media marketing channels to promote the opportunity. If proceeding with a select group of vendors, communicate your intent via email.
  • Allow a time-limited Q&A period for vendors to pose questions regarding the RFP, then respond thoughtfully and honestly to each. Post both the questions and answers for all potential responders on the RFP webpage or distribute via email to those on your selected list.
  • Be open to original, creative responses that may not take the form of a written proposal. Depending on the services requested, this could even be a review criterion. In the TMG conversation, someone mentioned an inventive proposal submitted in the form of a short documentary video, which was rejected by the selection committee because of its "unorthodox" presentation.
  • Organize a two-phased interview process. Ask a member of the selection committee to conduct initial telephone interviews with the responding vendors, and then invite the finalists for an on-site meeting with the committee. For each, prepare in advance a protocol of questions that all vendors will be asked, but be flexible enough to allow genuine conversation to develop. Be sure to ask the vendors why they want to work on your project and what they offer that sets them apart from their peers.
  • Allow for finalist interviews that are longer than one hour in order to solicit in-depth information about a vendor, the firm’s working methods and past projects. Request in advance short bios of the vendor’s personnel who will actually be doing the work on your project and require them to be present for the on-site interview. (This is helpful because sometimes a firm’s principals who make the pitch are not the same ones who deliver the services.)
  • As an RFP reviewer, take your role seriously. Familiarize yourself with the evaluation criteria, read and make notes on all of the proposals in advance and come to meetings prepared to discuss them with intelligence and forethought. Once the finalists’ selection process has concluded and a vendor has been chosen, require and check references, as you would with any potential new hire. Then be timely in contacting the other firms who submitted proposals and politely tell them their services were declined, and why, if they inquire.

Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process.

And Don’t Do This

  • Do not ever issue an RFP if you are merely fishing for free ideas. This is unethical. Acknowledge that it takes time, effort and money on the part of vendors to respond to RFPs and they are generously sharing their expertise in the hopes of working with you. Respect the process.
  • Do not circulate or share the contents of any vendor’s proposal beyond the selection committee. Treat each proposal confidentially and as a work product owned by the responding vendor and use the submittal only to determine whether or not you will hire that vendor. (This does not apply, however, if you are a government entity and all of your activities are required to be public.)
  • Avoid overly legalistic and formal language in the RFP because this can inadvertently communicate an antagonist stance on your part to working with outside contractors. The letter of agreement that you will subsequently sign with the vendor you hire will have legalese enough for everyone!
  • Do not request multiple printed copies of the response submittals. Accept and circulate only digital proposals, as this will convey the value of sustainability that your organization presumably upholds.

Now Get Started!

Two final takeaways from the TMG discussion: Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process. And treat your vendors like partners rather than contractors. This will only well serve everyone in the end. 

For further insights from Carol, Paul and Barbara on this subject, visit the ExhibiTricks blog.

The Lessons Behind Why It's Never Too Late to Learn

Earlier this year, I was looking for an outlet and respite from work, so I decided to take lessons and learn to play acoustic guitar. I grew up in a musical family – all of us played an instrument and sang at church and in school choirs – so turning to music seemed a natural choice, even though it hadn’t been part of my routine for a long time. 

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit:  Founterior.com , October 3, 2013

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit: Founterior.com, October 3, 2013

In fact, it had been over 30 years since I took piano lessons from the Vienna-born, classically-trained, diminutive Mrs. Troy in her low-ceilinged, 18th century cottage filled with silk-upholstered antiques in the New England town where I was raised. Like my teacher and her home, my piano lessons were very proper: she assigned scales, exercises and pieces by Bach, Mozart and Schumann. At each session, I played while she gently corrected me and marked up the expensive sheet music with her perfect penmanship.

I was a good student and by all accounts a fine player by the time I went to college and gave up the piano. But I retained a good ear, have natural rhythm and can still read music. So I thought returning to music would be fun and entertained a not-too-distant future vision of pulling out my guitar after a nice evening meal and playing some old Joni Mitchell or James Taylor harmonizing with my husband.

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

By sheer good luck, I found my way to the East Providence studio of Mark Cutler, formerly front man of The Schemers, a wildly popular 1980s rock band from Providence, RI. His studio is cluttered with guitars, electronic equipment, computers and mismatched furniture. In his dark T-shirt and jeans, Mark is the real deal, a charming, talented musician and songwriter who has never stopped making great music, with a rich singing voice that marries Tom Petty with Bob Dylan and guitar playing to rival Eric Clapton. Fortunately, he loves to teach people how to play guitar and write songs, which he does when he’s not performing solo, writing film scores or leading his new band, Men of Great Courage.

But as I all too quickly realize, learning to play the guitar with Mark bears little resemblance to my past formal piano instructions. Each week, he shows me new chords and strumming patterns and how to play some classic songs, like the Stones’ Dead Flowers or Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He scribbles notes on lined paper and hands me song lyrics annotated with basic chord changes. We play together the songs I practice – I try to keep a simple beat while Mark improvises and makes his strings sing. I long to do that, but the 10,000 hours needed to produce this kind of mastery, as Malcolm Gladwell references in Outliers, are a long way away.

I can’t yet say that this is fun. Actually, it’s work that requires daily practice. I’m often frustrated because I want to go farther and faster than my current knowledge and skill allow. Mark is a kind and patient teacher, but I’m embarrassed in front of him when I play wrong notes or veer off rhythm or can’t remember a chord progression. I feel like I’m learning a foreign language. (Well, I am – it’s called "Tablature," which is shorthand notation for fingering fretted instruments, and it doesn’t look anything like the staffs and staves and notes that I remember from my days with Mrs. Troy.) Uncharacteristically, tears well up when I can’t make my fingers stretch to reach the right strings or hold my wandering fourth finger on the E.

I’ve been reflecting on what it’s like to learn new things as an adult and how different that is from learning as a child. I don’t remember studying piano to be as difficult – maybe my mid-life brain is simply less malleable than when I was younger. Many of us in the arts community strongly believe in lifelong learning and I’m experiencing on a very personal level how the act of learning something entirely new as an adult, though challenging, has great merit. University of Stirling (Scotland) emeritus professor of education John Field reports that lifelong learning, among other benefits, is “associated with better health, higher levels of social and civic engagement, and greater resilience in the face of external crises.” 

New research by UK neuroscientists Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas confirms that that the brain is most responsive to input during early to middle childhood and “plasticity” does wane with age. But they conclude adult learning is optimized when these seven key elements are in place:

  1. Practice, which is essential to achievement.
  2. Motivation, both self-directed and supported by others. 
  3. Learning from a real person with real materials, which is more effective than passive presentation (i.e., sitting in front of a computer and watching a videotaped lecture).
  4. Starting with the fundamentals and moving on to “higher order” skills.
  5. Providing a quiet learning environment.
  6. Making connections with pre-existing knowledge that the adult student already has.
  7. Ensuring rest and a good night’s sleep.

What does all of this have to do with the cultural workplace? We’re constantly asking our staff members to learn new things or embrace new ideas – we upgrade to a more complex database management program that we expect our teams to master; we urge participation in professional development workshops or conferences to enhance skills in any number of areas, like management, fundraising and marketing; we adopt new modes of conduct that shift internal cultures and expect everyone to follow. All of these require active learning and the right environment in which to learn. 

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

According to a May 2010 report by The Maritz Institute, the right adult learning environment can foster “behavioral change and improved performance” in the workplace. That environment, as underscored in Knowland’s and Thomas’ more recent research, recognizes that learning is a process requiring time for assimilation (aka practice). It also requires drawing on past knowledge to build bridges between the known and unknown (like me trying to find connections between piano and guitar playing). Social interaction is key, as is bringing emotion into the learning process and engaging multiple senses to create a deeper, more memorable experience. (It seems my welling up on occasion is a good thing!)

As we encourage learning in our teams, let’s make certain to provide a supportive environment to learn and give our people the time and tools to make the learning stick. And give me six more months and I’ll let you know how things are going with the guitar. It really is never too late to learn.

The Art of People Management

There’s lots of talk in the social media world these days about leadership – who has it, how to demonstrate it, whether it’s a trait you’re born with or a skill you can learn – while the notion of management continues to be downplayed. Management lost its luster back in the 1980s when leadership experts like Warren Bennis drew a finite distinction between leadership and management. In his seminal work, On Becoming A Leader, first published in 1989, Bennis writes:

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy, the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains, the leader develops.
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You're Just Like Your Father!

How many of you have been admonished for this by a family member? I certainly have, but it my case, I consider it a compliment.

My dad was a larger-than-life, gregarious man with a booming voice, twinkle in his eye and warm personality to match his big bear hugs. A chemist and Navy aerologist by training, he was a manufacturer’s representative by profession working in the rubber and plastics industries (think The Graduate, only without Anne Bancroft).

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